Hello, I hope you are well. It’s chilly and windy where I am, so instead of going to the gym this morning,  I wrote this Coaching Letter. I am not sure that those two events are as connected as I make them out to be, but there we are. Anyway, this Coaching Letter is about relationships and trust.

A couple of years ago, my husband took an autobiography (I forget whose) to read on a road trip. (I envy people who can read in cars—I become queasy immediately). The author, as a compositional device, made liberal use of the phrase “people often ask me” as a way to introduce a topic. This made my husband laugh heartily, and that’s one of the funniest memories I have of the trip: him breaking into laughter every few pages. Thus I am leery of writing, “people often ask me”, but it is true that I am often asked about how I find subjects to write about. My problem is not finding things to write about, my problem is deciding on something to write about—there is so much I could be writing.

My BFF Kerry and I do a lot of coaching workshops together, and we do a lot of demo coaching to illustrate what we’re talking about. People often ask us, “but you two know each other; don’t you have to have a relationship before you have this kind of conversation?” Which is generally tied to a question about trust. I infer that the underlying assumption is that it is hard to have difficult conversations, such as giving someone feedback or coaching (both of which are not always difficult, but can be), without a) getting to know them personally in some sense and b) building trust.

I bring this up now because we have done several of these lately, plus at the first session of the Introduction to Coaching workshop we asked people to coach each other who’d never met each other before, and we are about to host the first Coaching Power Hour in which we are going to ask people with no previous relationship to coach each other every month—in fact, that’s almost all they’re going to do. (Not too late to sign up for Power Hour! Register here!)

I am not disagreeing that trust and relationship are important, but I want to push on three things:

  1. What we mean by relationship
  2. What we mean by trust
  3. The time it takes to establish either one of them

I think the over-arching message is that we tend to treat trust and relationships as though they have to be built up carefully, over time, and that when they are built, they are fragile, but this is counter-productive. As a result of waiting for a relationship, we are coy: leery of telling each other what we think, for fear of what the other person may think. I see this as very inefficient—I might even call it a waste of time. If you think that there is something I could be doing to make my leadership/coaching/teaching more effective, and you haven’t told me (because you don’t think we have “that kind of relationship”) then you have a) deprived me of useful feedback, b) made me wonder what else you’re waiting to tell me, c) not shown that you have my best interest in mind, d) been dishonest, because you have failed to tell me the truth and failed to be transparent. Since you have violated the three tenets of trust (integrity, benevolence, competence), how am I ever going to trust you?

My favorite part of the demo coaching we have done recently is when the question of relationship came up when the coaching was with a new principal in another state, whom I have never met in person. Kerry, in debriefing her, asked how long it took before we got into the guts of the work—the answer was about 10 minutes into the first call to do introductions and set up the coaching.

Regarding relationships, my go-to resource (thank you, Anna!) is the Developmental Relationship Framework from the Search Institute. I’m going to be including this in a workshop I’m giving tomorrow afternoon, so it’s been on my mind a lot. I really like it because it describes a way of thinking constructively about relationships in a way that makes it clear that there are specific, research-based action steps that a leader, teacher, or coach can and should take in order to support others, and to be trustworthy. It is just as valid between adults as it is between adults and children. Here are the small but significant details I think are worth emphasizing:

  1. I don’t need to know details about you to care about you—in fact, maybe I should rephrase that to say, I don’t care if you have a dog, or if you are married or have children, but I care very much about what you care about;
  2. Accountability is not a police action—if we believe in agency and collaboration, then accountability is about holding each other to the commitments we have made, not about compliance.
  3. I am going to do my very best not to judge. Forgive me, fellow Americans, but Americans have a bit of an obsession for judgment—whether you call it grading, evaluating, or rating. And yet we have all this research showing that judgment impedes our ability to receive feedback and engenders a defensive reaction. There’s a distinction between a feedback conversation and an evaluation conversation that we must attend to—the importance of minding this distinction, I am sure, dwarfs the whole “we need to have a relationship” thing. But I think the common mental model is that having a relationship inoculates us from having to nurture the judgment/feedback distinction, and that’s a mistake.

I guess what I find particularly worrisome is that we hold off on getting to work on what matters until we have “built a relationship”, when working on what matters is what builds relationship. When you think of the most important people in your life—your parents most obviously, but others as well—they are the ones who told you the truth, helped you whenever they could, and stuck by you. These are the defining features of the relationship, not optional extras. You don’t have a relationship—one that matters, anyway—until you believe that the other person will do those things for you. So when people ask me whether they need to have a relationship before engaging in some specified behavior, that doesn’t compute for me.

I confess that I do not always get this right. A theme in my life is that I tell the truth as I see it to people I haven’t known very long, and it doesn’t go well. And it would be easy for me to dismiss those people as “not wanting to hear it” which would allow me to shrug my shoulders and say “oh well.” But a more honest assessment would be that I have failed to demonstrate convincingly that I am benevolent; that is under my control, and therefore my fault when I fail to accomplish it. Further, I would say that the conclusion of the other person that I am not benevolent is very likely to be when they feel judged, and I can give several examples of when I have screwed that up inadvertently—a typical mistake I make is that I assume that the other person sees things the same way that I do, so when I start talking and it becomes clear that a) they don’t (poor listening on my part); b) they feel judged by me (I come across as preachy); therefore c) they do not see me as benevolent (very hard to recover from).

Not only do I have a lot to learn, I would really like not to keep making the same mistakes.

Reading over this, it seems repetitive, but I can’t figure out what to cut. (Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said that if he had more time he would have written a shorter letter?) So I send it to you in the hope that you will be able to tease out a few key ideas that will be useful for you, no matter what your role. Let me know if I can help with anything. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
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